This article by Trang Le is part of Pandemic of Control, a series that aims to further public discourse on the rise of digital authoritarianism in the Asia-Pacific amid COVID-19. The Pandemic of Control is an initiative by EngageMedia, in partnership with CommonEdge. This edited version of the article is republished in Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.
In 2003, Susan Sontag published Regarding the Pain of Others, a powerful meditation on the representation of distant suffering. For Sontag, images of war-torn bodies, smashed houses, and starving children, brought straight to our living rooms via modern media, created a culture of spectatorship that simultaneously allows us to witness and glance away from the trauma of others. Twenty years on, we are now supplied with countless opportunities not only to witness others’ suffering, but also to remotely provide aid.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, platforms that connect citizens who are willing to help each other have emerged in Vietnam amid the lack of proper state welfare programs. Launched during the country’s strict August 2021 lockdown, these platforms were lauded as a timely, innovative, and humane technological solution.
But, while these apps are touted as exemplars of tech for good, they may also engender new vulnerabilities and harm. Platforms to provide aid can also function as a form of digital authoritarianism that limits perceptions of what counts as aid, and what it means to provide it.
Amid Vietnam's surge in COVID-19 cases in mid-2021, tough lockdowns were imposed and people were not allowed to leave their homes, even for take-away food. Vietnam’s urban poor have always relied on informal, more affordable food systems such as wet markets and street vendors, but these were forced to close as they were deemed potential hotspots for COVID-19 infections. For many precarious daily wage earners, starvation became a daily reality.
In partnership with the National Centre for Technology, a Vietnamese private tech company VNG Corporation developed Zalo Connect in August 2021, which allows users to request help and be matched with a donor willing to provide food and other necessities. Zalo Connect’s interface also has a map view that enables potential donors to locate nearby people in need. Its interface translates the cityscape and the crisis unfolding within it into a set of dots, with orange representing people needing assistance. Once help is provided, the dot switches to green. Potential donors can see detailed information regarding vulnerable people’s circumstances and their requests. One fortnight after its launch, Zalo Connect reported 85,000 matches.
The app exemplifies a humanitarian trend that centres on extracting data from vulnerable communities as a precondition for receiving aid, protection, and justice. How do these platforms perpetuate and legitimize the exploitative logic of data extraction where the beneficiaries are compelled to publish their own miseries in exchange for aid? What are the harms inflicted on these vulnerable communities as images, information, and other data representing their lives and bodies are stored in digital space — a space they have no control over? What is at stake when the pressing task of alleviating suffering during the crisis is framed as an issue of matching supply and demand?
The imperative of self-disclosing miseries
Zalo Connect mediates social interactions where people in insecure situations are compelled to share information about their suffering, trauma, and losses in exchange for aid and protection. Though not explicitly required by the platform, many people opt to narrate their hardships, perhaps to move potential donors. One request read:
I need help with food. I’m working at a construction site. My husband passed away and I’m raising two children on my own. One is sick but we can’t afford surgery. And now I’m unemployed.
The issue becomes one of autonomy and control. The requesters depend on those stories to bring them aid, which puts the onus on them to calibrate a story that will generate sympathy and compel donors to take action. In other words, the seeming democratization of aid afforded by Zalo Connect reinforces a self-surveilling regime, insofar as the agency and ownership of the story come up against the donor’s need for credible evidence and believable narratives.
The self-disclosure of miseries was compounded by contextual factors that prevented donors from witnessing donees’ plight firsthand. This distant witnessing creates a problem of trust, exacerbated by the pervasive discourse in popular media that seems to draw the line between the “deserving” and “undeserving,” “authentic” or “fake” poor. An article from VNExpress featured a donor who was frustrated with the “fake” help messages she encountered. She felt the need to “verify” all requests before deciding to help. This verification may entail requesting more proof. The border between vigilance and surveillance can be dangerously thin.
The interface of Zalo Connect allows donors, the relatively privileged group, to look upon Vietnam as a whole and enclosed space: a place with many suffering bodies, but also as an entire place of kindness. As one puts it: “Zalo Connect allows for kindness to spread.”
Viewed in an optimistic light, the relative accessibility of mobile phones, the internet, and social media may facilitate peer-to-peer aid and signal a bottom-up and localized support distribution. While there is some truth to this, such an interpretation weighs too heavily on the democratic potential of technology. On the surface, there is seemingly no intermediation between donors and donees, just a smooth flow of information and exchange that provides transparency and an emotional bond. However, there is no way for a crisis-affected person to voice for themselves what they demand outside preconceived notions of aid. As Theo Sowa, chief executive of the African Women’s Development Fund expressed:
When people portray us as victims, they don’t want to ask about solutions. Because people don’t ask victims for solutions.
In many ways, the savior mentality is reproduced beyond the app's interface. For example, the app is used as a part of a campaign to garner social capital for VNG, the company which developed it. The media landscape is replete with stories about how these vulnerable groups are grateful for the tool and the assistance they received. The vulnerable communities cannot turn back their gaze. Consequently, while Zalo Connect appears to give voice to otherwise voiceless communities, it is through this asymmetrical visibility and power relations that these communities are dehumanized.
By design, Zalo Connect does not allow for dignified access to aid. There is no framework to limit the amount and nature of the information that should be provided by the beneficiaries. Nor is there any consideration of destroying data about these vulnerable groups to protect their privacy. In a pandemic, this extra layer of extracting data from vulnerable communities in exchange for aid magnifies the power exercised over such communities, potentially resulting in shame, stigma, and re-traumatisation. This also reconfigures new power relations over the most vulnerable communities that have already been more heavily surveilled under ordinary circumstances.
Removes systemic context from aid
Zalo Connect illustrates how digital humanitarianism can function as a form of digital authoritarianism, legitimising an extractive relationship with the very groups they seek to assist, by requiring a public disclosure of miseries.
Difficult questions need to be asked. What problems and solutions are being framed for us? Who benefits from this framing? What does it mean for how we calibrate vulnerability, aid, and protection? Against the context of persistent failure from the state to provide a safety net to its citizens, Zalo Connect’s design implies a transactional solution to a structural crisis: The donor sends necessities and the problem is solved. But the problem of providing basic goods cannot be demoted into a mere problem of matching supply and demand.
*Trang Le is a PhD candidate at Monash’s School of Media, Film, and Journalism, and a member of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision Making and Society. She researches media technologies, gender, space/place, and datafication. Her work examines why complex social issues are conceived as having technological solutions and what the potential consequences are.